Poet Rajzal Zychlinsky, dies at 90, wrote in Yiddish

The tiny circle of living Yiddish poets grew a bit smaller recently with the June 13 death of Rajzal Zychlinsky, 90, in Concord.

She was best known for her Holocaust poetry and received Israel's Manger Prize in 1975. In addition, three of her poems were used in A Traveling Jewish Theatre's 1998 production "Diamonds in the Dark."

Zychlinsky was born in Gombin, Poland, in 1910. Her father had immigrated to the United States, leaving her mother and siblings behind. They all were killed later in the Chelmno concentration camp.

Zychlinsky survived the war by fleeing to Russia with her late husband, Dr. Isaac Kanter, whom she met in Poland. They had a son, Marek, who was born in Russia. After the war, they lived in Poland and France before coming to the United States in 1950.

"She spent a good deal of her life on the Upper West Side of New York City, going to cafeterias where other Yiddish writers used to go, including I.B. Singer," said her son Marek Kanter, who now lives in Berkeley.

Until two years ago, when she moved into a Walnut Creek nursing home to be near her son, she lived in Brooklyn.

"Poetry saves my life," she told the Bulletin in 1999. "For example, if I have troubles, I recite to myself one chapter of Charles Baudelaire's poem 'Death of the Poor.' I recite it and I feel better."

Indeed, "she lived for her poetry," said her son. But in addition to that, "she was always open to meeting new people and had an interest in other people throughout her life."

She wrote her first poem as a teenager, enthralled by the image of snow falling. "It inspired me and I started to look for other inspirations," she said in 1999.

Between 1939 and 1993, she published seven books of poetry in Yiddish. A collection of her poems, "God Hid His Face," was translated into English and published in 1997.

Her poems have been widely translated and anthologized, including in Aaron Kramer's "A Century of Yiddish Poetry."

Zychlinsky continued to suggest changes and corrections to her poems up till four months before her death, her son said.

When Kanter paid his weekly visits to his mother in the nursing home, "they often ended with the recital of one of the most powerful of her poems, 'God Hid His Face.'"

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."